The K-Car Reconsidered

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Lee Iaccoca gets blame – or credit – for the 1981-1989 Dodge Aires and Plymouth Reliant K-cars, but unlike the minivan, this one’s really not his fault.

He simply took the ball and ran with it.

Though Iaccoca touted the virtue of K-cars aggressively once on board as Chrysler’s newly installed chairman (after having been fired by Henry Ford II), the K-car had been in development since the late 1970s. Management realized that  battling the surge of high-quality Japanese imports with vinyl-roofed Volarés and Cordobas decked out in “rich, Corinthian” leather probably wasn’t cutting the mustard. These weren’t bad cars, actually. Just the wrong cars for the times.

They were automotive Aurochs, beasts engineered for very different times.

The change in scenery that took place between 1970 and 1981 – the year of the K-car’s launch – was dramatic. And not just at Chrysler. The entire American car industry did a parking brake 180 – converting pretty much its entire inventory from heavy-rollers with V8s and rear-wheel-drive to much smaller – and much smaller-engined – front-wheel-drive cars, both to meet changing buyer wants . . . and new government demands.

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were as much responsible for the transitioning of the industry as market forces. In 1975, the government issued a fatwa decreeing that every car company’s entire fleet of vehicles must average a certain mandatory minimum miles-per-gallon. It was the first time that the government intervened between car buyers and the gas pump. 

Failure to make the CAFE cut meant “gas guzzler” fines for the offending car/company. These of course were passed on to buyers, making it increasingly harder to sell big – and bigger engined – cars.

The CAFE standard was initially set at 18 MPG for passenger cars but was on schedule to rise to an impossible 22 MPG by 1981 – and then again to an even more impossible 27 MPG by 1984.

Well, impossible for big cars with big V8s.

Radical change was the prescription. Downsized by more than half – and not just under the hood – the 1981 Aries K-car was a tiny car. And a light car. Just 178.6 inches long overall and weighing in at 2,300 lbs., the 1981 Aries K was nearly three feet shorter than a 1970 Charger – and weighed about 1,500 pounds less.

And under the hood? 

A “Hemi” badge on a Chrysler product no longer meant a 426 cubic inch, 425 hp V8 – as it would have, back in 1970. In 1981, it meant  a Mitsubishi-sourced “Silent Shaft” 2.6-liter four cylinder with a two-barrel carburetor – and 92 horsepower.

This was the ’81 K-car’s highest performing engine.

Chrysler’s own engine – the 84-horsepower 2.2-liter “Trans-Four” – the
“trans” not meant in a Bruce Jenner way, but as a reference to the engine’s transverse, or mounted sideways-in-the-engine-bay position – was the K-car’s standard engine. It would entertain its owners with an erratic, surging idle caused by the problem-prone computerized spark-control unit that resulted in the engine’s timing jumping by 2 to 5 degrees – as if the lock-down bolt on the distributor shaft were loose except it wasn’t. 

When Chrysler switched to a slightly less crude Throttle Body Fuel Injection (TBI) system in the mid-1980s, it created another form of in-car amusement. As one contemporary reviewer wrote: “Chrysler’s TBI motors had a rather steep throttle tip-in, meaning if you tapped the rather stiff gas pedal, you got a lot of revs. Starting an automatic K-Car without jerking your passenger’s neck required a bit of practice; with the five-speed’s clunky shifter and abrupt clutch, driving smoothly was nearly an art form.”

Luckily, not much harm could come from a car that didn’t go very fast.

Zero to 60 times varied from a low of 18.1 seconds to as speedy as 10.6 seconds

There was no pistol grip shifter. No Air Grabber hood scoop option.

But you did get an 85-miles-per-hour “federal” speedometer – which was about right, given the K-car’s top speed.

The other thing you got was three times the mileage delivered by the big block Mopars of the early ’70s.

The ’81 Aries K carried a 41 MPG highway rating – easily meeting (easily surpassing) the CAFE mandatory minimum that year.

Mind, that was with a carbureted engine and a transmission without overdrive gearing. It was nothing less than spectacular. Consider that today – almost 40 years later and with all the advancements in technology – very few new cars can manage 40 or better on the highway.

You also got six-passenger capacity in a car that was smaller on the outside than a current-era five-passenger compact sedan, such as a new/2018 Corolla. This went for the two-door version of the K-car as well as the sedan. It was made possible by three-across bench seats in both rows – no center console dividing the real estate. Also, the front-wheel-drive layout did away with the space-hogging hump in the floorpan that characterized rear-drive cars of the era (as well as our era).

You could get a manual transmission in the thing, too – including the sedan.    

This then was this car that lead to Chrysler’s return from the abyss and enabled the company to go on to bigger and better things  . . . like the minivan.

The K-car is the object of many jokes and was as exciting as granny panties, but it was that kind of time. Inflation was running amok; people were paying double interest on loans and gas cost more then – adjusted for inflation – than it does today, more than 30 years down the road.

It made sense.

A ’70 Hemi Charger was exciting. In the way that a weekend in Vegas with the guys is exciting.

But come Monday, a K-car in the garage made a lot more sense.

We could use a car like it today.

Instead, we have over-priced, over-teched, space-inefficient cars that are larger on the outside and have less room inside. This includes today’s front-wheel-drive cars, which no longer have flat floorpans or three-across bench seats. The flat floorpans went away as a result of the Sporty Cult that requires even minivans to be “sporty” – which means they are lower to the ground. Which means, to make clearance for things like exhaust pipes and such, even FWD cars now have drivetrain tunnels – and lumps in the floorpan – just like RWD cars.

Bench seats went away for the same reason. Not “sporty.”

It’s a shame. 

Even though interest rates are single digit today, people are more in hock than ever. Gas may be cheap, but new cars are absurdly expensive.

One wonders whether the tooling for the K-car still exists.  If it does – and if it weren’t for Uncle and his rain of fatwas – probably the lines could be cranked up again and brand-new 50 MPG-capable 2018 K-cars, updated with overdrive transmissions and a few other worthwhile technological improvements  – this excludes eight air bags and back-up cameras and such – could be built and sold at a solid profit for the manufacturer for around $6,000 MSRP.

Makes a helluva lot more sense than a Tesla – or even a Corolla.

Which no doubt explains why it’ll never happen.

K Car Trivia: 

  • In Mexico, the K-car was sold as the Dart rather than the Aries-K or Reliant-K. 
  • The 1981 models had rear windows which didn’t roll down. 
  • The price of a typical K-car was about $5,800 in 1981; this grew to $6,995 by the time the 1986 “Aries America” appeared.
  • The basic K-car platform served as the basis for more than 50 different Chrysler vehicles, all the way through the late 1990s. 
  • David Lewis, auto industry historian and professor of business history at the University of Michigan, said no platform “… in the history of the automobile industry has so dramatically allowed a company to survive in such a substantial way. No company has been down so low, in such difficult straits, and then depended on practically a single product to bring it back.”

. . .

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Author of “Automotive Atrocities” and “Road Hogs” (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia.

69 COMMENTS

  1. Reading the Wikipedia article I found out that K-cars were the first cars that used metric measurements in their parts. Takes a bit of the bloom off the rose for me, as I hate the metric system.

    Still though, I wouldn’t pass up a K for a good price. Especially one of those wagons with the wood trim.

  2. Hard to believe this POS was once “Car of the Year”. I rented one in the early 80s to take my family to the mountains of western Pa. Going up the mountains, it slowed down to 30 MPH and the AC shut off to conserve energy. A family car with a Pinto engine doesn’t cut it.

  3. First car I had registered in my name was an Aries station wagon, circa 1985 or so. I was driving it so much that dad basically told me it was mine. My sister got the Omni that I didn’t total, so I guess that was mom and dad being equal with us.

    It had this habit of destroying SLA batteries if on the highway too long, which I tracked down to a bad voltage regulator. Having a gage on the dash would have helped me figure it out sooner, there was only a “trouble” light, gas and temperature gage. And of course that 85 MPH speedo. I happen to know that you can’t wind it the whole way around BTW. Then there was the time I came over a crown in the road and bashed into a deer (already dead) in the middle of the lane. Steering was never quite the same after that. Folding down the back seat I could stretch out, make out, or carry a whole (first) apartment’s worth of stuff. Transmission fluid was always pink and happy and never required a thought. In fact the fluids in general generally stayed where they belonged except for the time the dealer special tuneup ended up blowing a hole in a piston and destroyed the head gasket (maybe related to the timing problem), leading to a replacement engine.

    I ended up parking it when I bought the Subaru XT I was driving for work for a buck. Then sold it on to a neighbor for $500 (but we told the notary we settled on $100 to avoid sales tax).

  4. My K car would just shut itself off. Throw it in N and start it back up while still rolling. It would sometimes shed a part. It once made a loud noise like steel snapping. Very strange car. I gave it to a woman who was in a bad situation. Don’t know if it was a favor or not.

    • Well….it was a Chrysler product….. (Hey, that’s nothing….a friend of mine had a 80’s Fifth Avenue- with the “lean burn” carbs they used on the V-8’s of that vintage…. probably the WORST carb/ignition set-up EVER made! Talk about drivability issues and unreliability!)

  5. Nice article. Brings a question – did bench seats disappear because of gov’t regs or consumer preference. I know what I prefer, at least before I had kids ; )

      • I still get Hot Rod too. My first magazine subscription, that went on for 30 years or so, started when I was 10. Then I included Sports Car Graphic that really had all my heroes and taught me how to drive a road course. I practiced from the age of 12 in anything I could. My ’55 Chevy pickup was quite the corner ripper with the knob on the steering wheel for fast steering. I raced everything with tires including Jeeps, any hapless soul’s car I could get including pickups and farm tractors. Hold a long limb out to the side and push the governor open and it was race city. Nothing like a tractor with one brake much more worn than the other(they were always that way)so flipping the lever over so the brakes were both activated with one push wasn’t in the cards and you had to learn which one needed pushing further and keep the best one from grabbing. Nothing sissy about tractor racing.

    • Hi Dr,

      This one’s the fault of marketing agitprop. The relentless push to make everything “sporty” – even minivans. Which – literally – have “sport” trims.

      Hence, bucket seats in pretty much every new car, regardless of type.

      • What kills me, is that they touted one of the “benefits” of front-wheel drive, as not having a transmission/driveshaft hump to get in the way….but almost immediately, started making every car with a stupid center console….which was like replacing a tiny hill with Mt. Everest!

  6. Speaking of convertibles, you haven’t lived until you’ve driven a 76 MG Midget in Houston freeway traffic (back in the day). No a/c either. Fortunately I survived that coffin on wheels and it was loads of fun when you could leave the city and find some hills. I figured I could go under a semi if worse came to worse. Noisy though. Didn’t go over about 80. After a couple of years I’d had enough fun but sold it more more than I paid (used).
    As for K-Car story being the most dramatic story in saving a major auto firm, yes and no. In 2008-9 all the Big 3 nearly went broke (GM, Chrysler did — it was sold to Fiat, but Ford didn’t). So the Bush-Obama Depression practically sunk the entire US car industry. So much for “sound money” and “the world’s greatest financial system.” Down the Memory Hole with those facts! Though in that case it wasn’t just bad cars but Fed/US govt reckless credit.
    Personally I’ve driven big Chryslers (300C,M) for about 17 years and found them safe and powerful. Not gas sippers, but great for driving across Texas and in insane freeway traffic. I think about my MG days and wonder how I survived. Wouldn’t chance it today. Last year two teens in a pickup, on a four lane residential street a mile from where I live, bashed into the rear of a Chrysler 300 while speeding about 70. Chrysler got pushed off the road, but the pickup flew off and hit (literally) a brick wall. The teens flew out of their truck and died. No seat belts of course. The local paper reported “the Chrysler 300 passengers were unharmed.”
    Viola!

  7. I’ve always hated small cars/economy cars, but after playing demolition derby with a few K-cars I had pciked up for junk back in the 90’s (I’d work Sundays, and dump the scrappers in my storage yard, to take to the crusher on Monday) I grew to respect the K-car very much, because it was the TOUGHEST small car I’d ever come across! You could bash them with/into a full-sized Buick, and the K-car would hardly sustain any damage, while the Buick would be a mess! That, and their beautiful simplicity (as long as they had the 2.2 engine- the Mitsubishit-made 2.6’s could be a nightmare) really made them an anomaly among cars- even in the 80’s.

    One thing though, Eric, those EPA mileage estimates from back then were wild fantasies. The K’s got nowhere near 40MPG in real life. But even if you could average close to 30, that’s still a feat….even today.

  8. Very little damage has ever been caused by a car that couldn’t go faster.
    Damage is usually caused by an unfortunate need for deceleration that exceeds the capabilities of the vehicle and/or the driver.

  9. My own favorite car from that company was the Plymouth Duster with a straight six under the hood and a rear transmission. It had an alternative. That was the Dodge Dart from the 70s.
    What they had in common was decent engineering and decent records of repairs.
    What made them a success was the same thing that killed the K-car and introduced Americans to the Toyota Camry. It was a decent record of repair for the Japanese car and a huge problem with engineering designed to fail. Possibly before the car was paid off.
    The entire brilliant engineering of the American car was “designed to fail and at a certain point in time in the vehicle’s life. This was dinosaur behavior as it opened the market to seriously better engineered cars that goes on to this day. In other words they lost big time with name and reputation that goes on to this day.
    The only car I ever owned that failed an EPA test? It was an older Chevy Malibu.
    So what exactly is wrong with the gasoline engine?
    It was brilliant engineering. Key word here is “was”.
    A piston reverses direction. Inefficient. Yet the German engineered engine that didn’t reverse direction was a gas hog. So now we are going to pollute the world with electric engines instead.
    The battery has been obsolete for at least 100 years. So now we go the different chemistry of glass.
    The only way it will change is if someone designs a real car with real engineering.
    That means using the fuel efficiently.
    The real reason? Too much money lost by the car company as it becomes impossible to plan obsolescence into a really efficiently engineered vehicle.
    The said designed car can be cheap. Like no more than 1/4th of your monthly income.
    In that the K-Car did have the right idea if not the right engineering.
    The car has to be engineered so that guy on the farm in the back woods can fix it with 30 dollars worth of harbor freight tools. H might have a 6th grade education and be talented with mechanical things.
    Throw away technicians with college and engineering degrees at $90 or better an hour.
    That is what really made an American Car great.
    That straight six could have a lot of space to work under that hood. Today’s cars are cumbersome to work on including putting parts like alternators and starters where you need a rack to work on them.
    Or take the engine out to get to the back of the engine compartment spark plugs.
    The reason the mustang was popular was it was built around the fairlane engine and it was reliable.
    If I were designing an ideal car for an average family person?
    It would be easy to work on. I would be economical to buy new. It would have oil changes that anyone can change without getting their hands dirty. The plugs would be designed to last a long time.
    More important it would use the gasoline in a manner(regular gas) that makes sense. Like 40 miles to a gallon of gas.
    You engineer that. Controlled temperature gasoline with a dispersing technology so it fragments the gas before it reaches the piston. No engineer here. But I have seen it done.
    Turn the engine from a dinosaur built with 30s engineering to the modern day.
    Then sell it at a price people can afford.

    • I had a ‘75 Dodge Dart with the 225 slant six; was a great engine and easy to work on, there was so much room under the hood you could almost sit inside it while working on the car. Always ran well as I remember, although you had to carry a spare ballast resistor to replace the one that regularly burned out. Chrysler had that problem for years, don’t know why they never figured out a better design but probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about it. The planned obsolescence was that the entire car turned into rust after not many years, the frame rusted so badly on mine that the torsion bar broke loose one fine day with a bang that scared the crap out of me; off to the junkyard with it after that. I think Lee Iaccoca said his plan for Chrysler was to sell one car to one person, knowing they’d never buy another one. He was right.

    • Dave: “More important it would use the gasoline in a manner(regular gas) that makes sense. Like 40 miles to a gallon of gas. You engineer that. Controlled temperature gasoline with a dispersing technology so it fragments the gas before it reaches the piston. No engineer here. But I have seen it done.”

      Are you referring to Smokey Yunick’s adiabatic engined Fiero? From what I recall, Smokey took a standard Pontiac 4 banger, did some piston and combustion chamber coatings, and found a way to superheat and perfectly atomize the a/f mixture. With cylinder temps far in excess of normal, he was able to pull about 50mpg, and the car made so much power that it could break the tires loose at highway speeds.

      Someone has the actual car with the original engine and all the parts and notes Smokey left behind. They said they were working on getting his ideas into production. That was ten years ago. No news since.

  10. Great article!
    My first car was a 1984 Aries lol.
    I’m not a small person but I did manage to fit myself and 5 people into it during my university days. DO I miss the car, no, but it did the job for its time.

    Fast forward to 2017, and I happened to rent this year a Nissan Micra, I laughed and thought I would never fit in this thing, but it surprisingly had a lot of room and was easy to get in and out of. So it’s not all that bad =)

  11. Hi Eric, I really enjoy all your columns, but this one made me comment. My father was an executive at Chrysler from the 60s to the 80s. He leased two new cars each year through the executive lease plan and in 1981, leased a two door Aires. Two buddies and I took it from Detroit to Key West Florida for spring break. We agreed we would each drive a tank of gas. Well…we realized that wasn’t going to work, as we wore out before the tank emptied. Another government fatwa set the top speed on the interstate at only 55, and I recall seeing lots of radar cops on that long trip. So, we probably didn’t go much over 60 mph. Amazing gas mileage for a decent size car, though entirely under powered.

  12. From Eric: “In 1975, the government issued a fatwa decreeing that every car company’s entire fleet of vehicles must average a certain mandatory minimum miles-per-gallon. It was the first time that the government intervened between car buyers and the gas pump.”

    American car manufactures, to this day, have never recovered from the fatwa. The Japanese were far ahead in small car design at that time. “Punish success and reward failure” is the current motto.

    Naivete: Tenth Amendment – “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution,
    nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    • Hi Liberty,

      To this day, I find it remarkable that so many people simply accept that it is legitimate for the government – that is, for a bunch of busybodies – to tell them how many miles per gallon their cars must achieve.

  13. I always like the K cars’ lines: neat and squared. Many a long moon ago I rented one, and even though it had plenty of rental mileage on it it was still decent to drive. I’d hoped to get one with a stick shift but the manager explained that people came in all the time asking for a manual transmission who had no idea how to drive a clutch. Those were the days when sticks still had some cachet, even with the ignorant and unable. Nowadays people would likely say “eww” and turn away as if from a turd.

    Note also that while the accursed feds worked their fell ways on the Ks as well as other makes, public taste demanded all the changes that we can despise now. I’m not sure who’s worse: the overweening government or my fellow ovines who lack all good sense and fall for any glittering bauble that tumbles out of the garbage can.

    • Au gimme that comedy gold.

      I know I hate when I formulate a chemistry joke….. and there is no reaction.

      Are you 11 protons btw? ‘Cause you look sodium fine to me.

      What doesn’t eric and the rest of you not understand about the heavy handed copper? So many articles, when to me it all makes perfect CENTS!

      I reckon it’s like my industrial chemist father always says about having good health. Find the right elemental guru who knows helium, curium, and barium. Cause those are the three crucial medical elements for you to watch out for. Truth is, if you can’t curium or helium, you barium!

  14. I have never *once* seen an Aries, Reliant, 600, or Caravelle with a manual transmission — but, I did once see a Plymouth Voyager — the stubby one — with a five-speed. Wretched vehicle.

  15. Dear Eric,

    “Makes a helluva lot more sense than a Tesla – or even a Corolla. Which no doubt explains why it’ll never happen.”

    During the bad old days of hardline Marxist Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” on the Chinese mainland, the policy was:
    先红後傳 xian hong hou zhuan

    It meant:
    “First Red, then Expert”

    In other words, ideological purity trumped technical expertise.

    Later, fortunately, the “capitalist roader” Deng Xiaoping took over where the doctrinaire Marxist Mao left off. Since then mainland China has advanced faster than any society ever has in recorded history. The world’s fastest supercomputers are all made in China. The number one fastest even uses chips R&D’d in China.

    Sad to say, the US has long been under a regime of “First green, then expert”, and is paying the price for its folly, just as China did under Mao.

    • If you listen to that moonbat Nunzio, we’ve haven’t even been to the moon here in the US, unlike China and it’s adorable little YuTu rover.

      Maybe the majority will say he’s been rhetorically trounced for not regurgitating the sacred moon mnemonics…

      In the beginning there was sputnik, and all was dark about the face of the american earth, but then JFK said let there be light, and soon a mission of light there was, and the United Statesians saw that the light was good and they called it Apollo and Mercury and Gemini and other celestial things.

      Soon there were small steps for man, and largest of steps for a woman, like secret deoderant spray in the scentless lunar morning, with dust rising like steam from some low gravity morning golf course.

      And behold I saw the four horseman of the soviet apocalypse all come a riding to the ends of the four corners of the earth with all the United Statesians treasures and scruples, and now the space and war race was on
      And here comes pride in the backstreatch
      Heartaches goin’ to the inside
      My tears are holdin’ back
      They’re tryin’ not to fall

      My hearts out of the runnin’
      True love’s scratched for a nation’s sake
      The race is on and it looks like striped spangled star-aches
      And the winner looses all
      https://youtu.be/czGu38vHOIU?t=17

      I think rather Nunzio acquitted himself well, and proved that he is not OBSOLETE along with all the rest of us Mr Wordsworths
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGZqnc6_5To

      Closing narration

      “ The chancellor, the late chancellor, was only partly correct. He was obsolete. But so is the State, the entity he worshiped. Any state, entity, or ideology becomes obsolete when it stockpiles the wrong weapons: when it captures territories, but not minds; when it enslaves millions, but convinces nobody.

      When it is naked, yet puts on armor and calls it faith, while in the Eyes of God it has no faith at all. Any state, any entity, any ideology which fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man…that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under “M” for “Mankind” – in The Twilight Zone.

      • Speaking of OT/thread hijacking……. OK, maybe we weren’t but check this out:

        https://www.wunderground.com/cat6/why-it-so-hard-fix-national-flood-insurance-program
        I love the way the discussion of this ridiculous article by this pompous retard gets hijacked by some guy who reminds me of Tor. Before the climatards can get going, here comes the hijacker with a string of youtube vids and the OT comments start to roll.

        Shades of EPAutos and on a Disqus comment string, too. (how’s that for a sentence fragment?)

        • Heck yeah eight, threadjacked by a VETERAN and thanks all you vets who survived and are now reading this.

          \\Top Comment\\ SNIP \\

          \Grothar • 21 hours ago
          \Happy Veteran’s Day to all the veterans out \there. Thank you for your past current and \future serving.

          \Here is a picture of me a long time ago (the \bottle is only a prop, honestly, never drank \alcohol ever, not a joke)

          \You have to admit, I was striking.

          \\End Weather Underground SNIP\\

      • Good one Tor. Somehow it reminds me of MIB 11 when Boris the Animal of 1969 is speaking with Boris of “now” in the 21st century. Boris of now says he’s been kept a prisoner of humans on the moon for decades. Boris of ’69 says it’s preposterous since no human has ever been to the moon.

      • I suspect that it would be a historic occasion for the nation if we had “even been to the moon here in the US” since the moon’s presence in the US would be difficult to rebute.

  16. It’s really amazing what they did with that K car platform. Their backs were to the wall, so they had no choice but to use it. Built millions of vehicles on it and lived to see the 21st century.

    The folks actually had a convertible K car, an 1986 if i remember right. By today’s standard it was a heap, but it wasn’t that terrible. And convertibles are always fun, even when they are junkers. It was 12 years old when the drivers door fell off…….. Dad opened the door, and the pin in the hinge gave way. There it was on the ground. Thankfully the window was rolled down, so that didn’t break. It was temporally fixed with a nail, the power to the door had only pulled out of the plug, so push it back in and it was fine.

    But lots of things that could have been wrong with that car were fine. Power windows and top always worked, the top didn’t leak.

    • Dear richb,

      “convertibles are always fun, even when they are junkers”

      So true. There is something deeply visceral about being out in the open that makes driving or riding in a convertible or roadster more emotionally satisfying than in a hardtop, or even a targa top.

      It’s often so satisfying one does not even feel the “Need for Speed” that one might in a hardtop pony car. muscle car, or hot hatch. As a result one can get a “high” without even breaking the irrationally low speed limits imposed by Big Brother.

        • Dear Eric,

          Could not agree more.

          I have loved Miatas since the first generation models came out, and I rode in a woman friend’s first generation Miata in LA. Even the automatic transmission couldn’t dim my enthusiasm for the car.

          It was “Back to the Future” of 60s era British roadsters, only without the quality control problems. It was back to the era of MGAs, Triumph Spitfires, Austin Healy Sprites, and Lotus Elans.

          Looking forward to it!

        • In 2009, English automotive critic Jeremy Clarkson wrote:

          The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it fourteen.[7]

          MAZDA MX-5 2.0I SPORT TECH

          There’s a farm shop near where I live. Actually, it isn’t really a farm shop at all because the floor is made from oak rather than fertiliser bags and all of the staff look like supermodels instead of burst walnut trees.

          Inside you can buy jumpers made from exotic goats, bread that would make a Frenchman faint and apples so shiny, they could double up as disco balls. It’s called Daylesford and it’s the subject of much mockery, principally because everything is so bleeding expensive. As a friend of mine said recently: “I went to Daylesford to get some cheese this morning. But I only had £162 on me.”

          The thing is, though, it is excellent value for money. When I go there on a Saturday morning, I always meet someone who invites me round for dinner that night. This means I don’t have to buy supper, or cook it.

          What’s more, without Daylesford I’d have to go to London to buy my groceries, which would cost £50 in petrol, £8 for the congestion charge and £100 to get my car back from the pound. So, all of a sudden, 25 quid seems the bargain of the century. Especially when you consider that Daylesford has started to affect house prices. People will pay considerably more to live near it, which means that every time someone buys a loaf of bread, I’m earning about £500,000.

          And on top of all this, without Daylesford I’d have to go to a local supermarket to buy my ham. Yes, the ham there is only 4p, but it’s Barbie pink and about as nutritional as the plastic bag it’s sold in.

          We see the same sort of thing with cars. I recently drove something called a Perodua Myvi, which sells for £7,600. That’s cheap when you consider it has the same number of wheels and glove boxes as a Rolls-Royce Phantom. But it is extremely expensive when you work out how miserable and dreary it makes you feel. It’s a car built utterly without joy. Buying one of these would be like buying a nylon dog simply because it’s cheaper to keep.

          There are lots of cheap cars on the market but only a very small number offer truly excellent value for money. The Fiat 500 is one, for sure, because just seeing it makes you happy. And the Skoda Roomster is another, provided you avoid the three-cylinder diesel version. Yes, you will save money when you buy it, but the savings will be offset by the cost of the funeral you’ll need shortly after you first try to build up enough speed to join a motorway.

          The Jaguar X-type is perhaps the best example of cost having nothing to do with value. Yes, it was very cheap for a Jaguar. But since it was nothing more than a Mondeo in a rented suit, it was extremely poor value for money. That’s why it never sold well. And that’s why 300 poor souls at the Halewood plant are now facing the dole queue.

          And then there’s the new Vauxhall Insignia VXR. On the face of it, this looks excellent value. The Insignia is a good-looking car and the hot version is even better. What’s more, it has a long list of standard kit, a 321bhp twin-turbo engine and four-wheel drive, and since prices start at a whisker over £30,000 it is way less than its rivals from Audi and BMW.

          Yes, but the money you save in no way compensates for the fact that you must spend the next year or so telling your friends that you have a Vauxhall. Which is a bit like saying you have genital warts. People will raise their eyebrows and edge away.

          Buying a Vauxhall to save money is like going on holiday to Northampton to save money. You will, for sure, but you will not be as happy as if you went to France.

          And all of this brings me naturally to the Mazda MX-5, which I think represents better value for money than any other car on sale in Britain today. A 1.8-litre soft-top version, as opposed to the one that comes with a folding metal roof, is £16,345, and for that you get almost exactly the same amount of fun you would get from a Ferrari 430 Spider.

          This is the thing with convertibles. When the roof is down, the buffeting and the racket mean that any speed above about 80 is unpleasant. So you really don’t need a million horsepower or a gearbox that can swap cogs in a billionth of a blink.

          With the Mazda you get the engine at the front, rear-wheel drive and skinny tyres. This, then, is a car designed to thrill and excite and put a massive smile on your face at the sort of speed that won’t mess up your girlfriend’s hair.

          My old mate Tiff Needell, from commercial television, is perfectly capable of power-sliding a space shuttle but argues to this day that the most fun he’s ever had is in a Morris Minor, because it can be provoked into some tail-out action at about 2mph. So it goes with the Mazda. In short, you don’t need to be an astronaut with titanium hair follicles to get the best out of it.

          Put simply, an MX-5 feels more alive at 30mph than most other cars feel at 100.

          So, every time Mazda changes something on its little sports car, I’m worried the end result will be a bit more serious, a bit more “driver-oriented”, a bit more anal. And that the original recipe will have been ruined.

          I realise, of course, that an original can be improved, no matter how good it may have been. You have only to listen to the Hothouse Flowers’ version of I Can See Clearly Now to understand this. But, for every original that’s improved, there are a thousand that are ruined.

          That’s why I approached the recently facelifted version of the MX-5 with a heavy heart and a sense of foreboding.

          Let me give you an example. Mazda has fitted the engine with a forged crankshaft, floating pistons and new valve gear. It all sounds like the wet dream of a diehard, adenoidal car bore. But don’t worry. Despite all the work, the amount of power the engine produces remains exactly as it was before. And it’s the same story with the torque. The only real change is that you can now rev to 7500rpm before you need to change gear. And it all sounds a bit more sporty.

          The company has changed the front suspension too, and that worried me as well. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the setup in the old car, so why fiddle? Plainly it was simply to keep the engineers out of Hiroshima’s love hotels, because it is just as sparkling and brilliant as it was before. Maybe it’s a bit more focused, a bit sharper. But only if you concentrate, and that’s the thing about the MX-5. You don’t concentrate: you’re way too busy having a nice time.

          Inside, you now get Recaro seats and higher-quality switches, but I didn’t notice these either.

          I said recently that the BMW Z4 is the best of the open sports cars, but after a couple of days with the Mazda I realise I was talking nonsense. The BMW is excellent but the MX-5 demonstrates that its extra speed, extra grip and extra size is all a bit wasteful. In the little Japanese car you get exactly what you need, and exactly the space you need, and nothing more.

          I realise that the hairy-chested among you will be scoffing and tutting and heading straight for this column on the internet so you can speak your mind. You will say “girl’s car” and “gay” and all sorts of other things.

          Well, that’s fine. You waste your money on a Mustang or a Ferrari. The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it 14.

          The Clarksometer

          Mazda MX-5 2.0i Sport Tech
          Engine 1999cc, four cylinders
          Power 158bhp @ 7000rpm
          Torque 139lbft @ 5000rpm
          Transmission Six-speed manual
          Fuel 37.2mpg (combined)
          CO2 181g/km
          Acceleration 0-62mph: 7.6sec
          Top speed 132mph
          Price £19,695

          Clarkson’s verdict
          I’d give it 14 stars if I could

  17. Yep, the K Cars have so much historical significance they now are almost “collectables.”

    Such utilitarian transportation appliances are only welcomed by the market at times when the national mindset is strongly focused on austerity. Such as right after the 1980-81 economic crash.

    You’ll get your “21st Century K Cars” soon enough.

  18. I came damn close to buying a used K-car for about $1,000, before the spouse said “Oh, hell no.”

    Four people could fit in it comfortably — six if you jammed them in like sardines. The car wasn’t very wide.

    If the fed mandates all disappeared, the automakers wouldn’t make a K-car like vehicle, they’d make something like a Corolla that instead of weighing in at over 2,800 pounds, weighed more like 1,600 to 2,000 pounds (what a 1970 Corolla weighed), and instead of getting 40 MPGs on the highway, got more like 60 MPGs — or had 5 second 0-60 runs with a V6 getting 40 MPGs. Or both versions.

    • Hi Jim,

      I sorely would like to have the resources to be able to do some What if? projects, such as finding a good/stock K Car and updating it with a few things and reporting the results. I am certain I could get one to 60 in 9 seconds – on par with most current economy sedans – and get it to average 50 MPG – and be everyday reliable and cost less than $8,000 all in.

      • If you use a modern engine with say 130 HP, that thing will get to 60 mph in under 8. If I only had room to work on a project like that. Market it with Bud Lindemann style road tests. Do a before and after, place it on Youtube and FB and you might have something. There is a dude called Erick the Car Guy. He restored a Fairmont.

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